The BJP juggernaut rolls on, and here’s why
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah seem to have a firm grip over the narrative, while the Congress is clueless and facing a crisis both of leadership and credibility.
As Maharashtra and Haryana go to the polls five months after the BJP’s stunning victory in the Lok Sabha polls, the party seems to be well-placed to repeat its electoral successes. Home Minister Amit Shah has made it clear that the coming assembly polls will be a referendum on the abrogation of Article 370, thus trying to convert an assembly poll into a Parliamentary kind of contest.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah seem to have a firm grip over the narrative, while the Congress is clueless and facing a crisis both of leadership and credibility. The party is also witness to an exodus of its leaders, who increasingly feel that it may not be able to revive.
What exactly went wrong with the way the Congress assessed things?
The BJP in the last few years deftly claimed to be the torchbearer of nationalism, a social phenomenon that is on the rise not just in India but also in countries like the US and UK.
NDA-1 made nationalism the prime debate, starting with the JNU controversy of 2016. Ministers called for the tricolour to be hoisted in universities, for tanks to be installed on campuses, for the need to identify illegal immigrants, first in Assam and then, futuristically, in the rest of India.
TV channels also disseminated the narrative, and Indian nationalism began to seem, in the eyes of common people, indistinguishable from the BJP.
The Congress, the party of the freedom struggle that claimed a monopoly on Indian nationalism for decades post-independence, stuck to familiar themes like welfare, farm crises, and corruption. Its strategies were not wrong – given the dominant political narratives from 2004 to 2014, when welfare and corruption had become major issues – but it failed to notice that the dominant narrative had changed, a shift also aided by repeated nationalist messages being flashed across TV channels and getting circulated over the social media.
In short, the Congress – and most liberals – failed to notice that the dominant concern in the minds of the people was the nation, seen not in concrete but rather abstract and nebulous terms.
During my field visits in several elections over the last five years – particularly in Rajasthan and Haryana in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls – I came across people coming out with what sounded like a strange explanation for their support for Modi. They would concede that there were real problems in their lives that hadn’t been solved but would add, “But we have to think of the nation and not of ourselves alone when we vote. Modi is working for the nation and doing India proud.”
They would falter on specifics but vaguely appreciate the PM. In some cases, Modi’s grand rallies addressing NRIs and PIOs in foreign lands were seen as evidence that the world was finally taking note of India as a great power.
This sense of nationalism is deeply symbolic. Who is speaking repeatedly about the nation is as important as what is being done for the nation.
The nation itself has been interpreted differently by socialists, liberals and the conservatives. For the socialists, the nation is its people and their welfare is nationalism, something Jawaharlal Nehru explicitly said in Discovery of India while discussing what the nation meant for him. For liberals, nationalism is often directly linked to citizens’ rights and freedoms.
However, there is a right-of-centre symbolic imagination of the nation, where its symbolic grandeur is detached from everyday realities. The visualisation of the nation as a female deity (Bharat Mata) is how those who lean towards a Hindu cultural sense of the nation imagine it.
The Congress’ preoccupation with welfare and corruption – the Rafale deal – alone offered the BJP an excellent chance to align the larger, societal, sense of nationalism with its own idea of it. The JNU incident targeted the academic left and the discourse woven around the NRC formally targeted illegal immigrants, making it clear that citizenship was a key national question. But a distinction between Muslim “infiltrators” and Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist “refugees” was also added.
In this manner, a clear association between nationalism and Hindutva was fostered, with an eye not just on Assam but also Bengal. In fact, the message was supposed to be sent across to other parts of India too.
The Congress failed to enter the debate on nationalism, choosing to offer the BJP a walkover.
The abrogation of Article 370 also made an explicit nationalist pitch, saying there cannot be a special status for one part of India, i.e., Kashmir. However, even here, it was a Muslim-dominated region that was addressed, thus firmly associating nationalism with Hindutva.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi debunked the move on procedural grounds. Yet, procedural arguments appeal mainly to the intellectual or the victim of a policy. The Congress had for decades proclaimed Jammu and Kashmir to be an integral part of India and it was under the Narasimha Rao government that Parliament had in 1994 passed a resolution saying that entire Jammu and Kashmir is part of India. The procedural argument offered by the Congress – some in the party were uncomfortable with this line – doesn’t seem to be cutting much ice with common people. For, Modi can claim that what he has “done” is what the Congress always proclaimed but could not “do”.
In the last five years, when nationalism and Hindutva were both on the rise, the Congress did not invest its energies in reclaiming nationalism as its own. It stuck to the welfarist and anti-corruption pitch. On the corruption front, it was asked about its own record, and it did not have much arsenal to defend itself on that point.
The Congress’ mistake has made nationalism at the moment synonymous with the BJP for a significantly large section of the population. True, the Congress could not possibly have taken electoral advantage of the Hindutva surge – it had to talk about secularism as its motto – but it should have begun a major debate on nationalism, spelling out how its nationalism differed from that of the BJP. Such a debate could also have made common people understand the richness of Indian nationalism, which presents itself in multiple visions and also prevented its popular association mainly with Hindutva.
However, the Congress erred in allowing a walkover to the BJP on this central question.
While the Modi government has to now deal with an economy that is slowing down, we aren’t sure whether this will affect its electoral prospects in the medium term, unless the Congress has the ability to communicate with people. Many are holding global factors rather than the government responsible for the downturn. And such downturns may, for all we know, make people take refuge in religion and what they see as the spiritual world, a domain where the BJP has a clear advantage over the Congress.
The woes of the grand old party – now a fraction of its former self – are far from over. It can no longer hope to be a default alternative to the BJP once the latter has run its course in power. For, the Congress may not remain a real alternative to the BJP till then, unless it does some serious brainstorming on how to put its house in order.